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The Book of Moods
How I Turned My Worst Emotions Into My Best Life
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Although altogether too much of life is mood.
—Renata Adler, Speedboat
Things That (*used to)
Put Me In A Mood
A comment from my mother
A bad photo
Strangers telling me I look like Claire Danes
Long days at the office
Loud groups in small restaurants
Unreturned text messages
This book is a collection of every bad mood I’ve ever had. Every fight, every breakdown, every moment lost. A map of every place I lost control because of some insignificant bump—a look, a comment, a thought. A list of every night I wasted in stress, in tears, in hate, in judgment, and every morning I squandered—missing the sunrise, the smell of the coffee, the warmth of my husband, the simple blessing of waking up—because something didn’t feel right. It’s a collection of all those moments, all those emotions, all the tiny, insignificant triggers that pushed me into them, and what I learned from it all.
After five years, a finished book, and hundreds (thousands?) of bottles of wine, I am still a moody woman. A woman who feels things deeply—the sting of a remark, the bite of a bad day, the pain of an unflattering photo. I am still passionate and sensitive and, at times, fragile. I still want to turn back some days, scream into the void, and smash the life I’ve constructed in a fit of anger. The difference now is that I am no longer controlled by these urges, these feelings, these thoughts. I am no longer a woman ruled by her moods.
I am no longer a woman who walks through the door ready to burst. A woman who assumes the moods of others, absorbing them and passing them off as her own. A woman who reacts and retaliates and rewinds scenarios like worn-out cassette tapes. No. None of that anymore. Now I expel. I radiate. I pass through. I know what my moods are—what provokes them, irritates them, and assuages them—and because I know what they are, I know how to transform them. Into love. Into compassion. Into good moods that collect and gather and make up a good life.
Five years ago, when I was younger and blonder and on track with the idea I had in my mind of where and how things should be, life was not good. It didn’t get good, and I mean really good, until about six months ago, when this book was almost finished and I was sitting in my bedroom in my apartment in Brooklyn and realized I hadn’t fought with my husband in over a year. I mean really fought, the way we used to, when I felt attacked and would say something so unnecessary, so wounding, I was surprised he never left me. And when I realized I no longer spent hours fretting over an unreturned text message or a cyst on my chin. When I went home for my twenty-ninth birthday and didn’t spend the Amtrak ride back obsessing over a comment my mother made. It took a while because I had to go through each mood, find out what it was telling me, and practice on it, again and again, but I finally did it. And as I sit here now, reveling in the newfound comfort of knowing myself and the feelings that pulse through me, I can’t stop thinking about how I would never have gotten here if it hadn’t been for a stranger in a bar.
* * *
We met by chance on a cold, wet night in the middle of January. I was twenty-four, had just moved in with my boyfriend (now husband), and was miserable. Not sad. Not depressed. Just full of a white-hot agitation. There was something stirring at the bottom of my soul. Something had latched on and wouldn’t get off.
I couldn’t go back to the apartment this way. Not after last week, when I’d felt the same heaviness, arrived home under the same cloud, and yelled at Jay over the dishwasher. “You unpack it so aggressively,” I said. We’d only moved in together three months earlier and I was already sabotaging it. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just be happy? These were the questions that plagued me as I walked up from the fluorescent underground of the subway onto the dark streets of Brooklyn. I needed to find something to soothe me, to knock off whatever had clamped itself to me. The only solution I could think of was alcohol, and the only bar I knew was five blocks past our apartment. Walking past my building, head down against the cold and the possibility of running into Jay or the doorman, I opened the heavy metal door with the neon sign above it, and that’s when I saw her.
She had auburn hair, short and curled. She wore a mauve skirt and black pumps and was sitting alone nursing a martini. She wasn’t beautiful in a traditional New York, supermodel way. I don’t even remember what her face looked like. All I remember is that I couldn’t stop wanting to catch a glimpse of her. She had what people describe as “an aura.” She was one of those women you pass on the street and momentarily transplant your consciousness to and imagine going home to their world. Their beautiful house. Their handsome husband. Their perfect life. I bet she never feels like this, I thought. I bet she goes home to her boyfriend and lovingly asks how his day was, gliding through the apartment, unfazed by the work emails pinging on her phone. I bet she lets things go with ease. Comments, texts, thoughts rolling off her like drops of water.
She was only a few stools down from me, and when I brought out my book to pretend to read, I heard her say something. Assuming it was meant for someone else, I ignored it. But there was no reply, and when I looked up, she was staring at me. The radiant girl. “I love that author,” she said again, smiling. So I scooted over one stool and she did too and now we were one stool away from each other, talking. Her name was Joanne and she was VP of sales at a large technology company in Manhattan. I don’t remember much else she said about herself because I was too distracted studying her. She was confident and funny, sometimes loud during the punch line of a story, but absolutely charming. And that charm made her magnetic. And that magnetism created a different kind of elegance. Like a vessel of contained sunlight. All of these particles buzzing in perfect harmony.
After two drinks, we’d moved on to the more personal stuff. Like where I’d met my boyfriend. What my favorite book was. And why I was drinking two double whiskeys on a Monday night alone in a bar. She told me she was treating herself to a celebratory cocktail after closing a client. I took another sip and told her I was avoiding going home. That I just wasn’t feeling like myself. I told her it was too difficult to explain. When she asked me to “just try,” I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Maybe I could try to explain it to myself. So I told her how the past few years I’d gotten everything I wanted—an apartment, a partner, a career in New York—yet I couldn’t stay happy about it. How no matter how hard I tried, I kept breaking down, lashing out, ruining things. How it felt like the older I got, the less control I had over myself. How I was angry even when there was nothing to be angry about. Stressed even when I didn’t need to be stressed. Annoyed, irritable, and tense even though life was good. And I had no idea why.
When I’d finished, my drink untouched, hers half-gone, she was just sitting there, looking at me. My mind began to race. Did she think I was crazy? Had I shared too much? Was I scaring her?
“You feel it too,” she finally said.
“Feel what?” I asked.
Is that what these were? These feelings I couldn’t shake? These moments of tension, sensitivity, and despair? She didn’t tell me I was stressed. Didn’t tell me I needed a new boyfriend or a new job. She didn’t tell me I was crazy. She had what I had. She felt it too. There’s light in the words I feel the same way. There’s sanity in a diagnosis. Together, those two things altered something in me, tightened a screw that stopped the shaking. I have moods. It was declaration more than hypothesis. I didn’t care if what she said was right or wrong. Didn’t care if she was crazy, if I’d just happened to catch her on a good day. It wasn’t about her. It was about what she represented. Hope. Possibility. Change. There was something to measure. Something to observe, alter, and control. Walking out of the bar, dizzy from the whiskey and the revelation, I decided, then and there, that I would dedicate myself to figuring out these moods that ran through me.
What Are Moods?
It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.
It’s the small, unassuming comments people make that change us. In fifth grade, Marla Cohen noted that I had “weird eyebrows.” This observation, made on a cafeteria bench beneath painted letters of the alphabet, shifted some angle in my existence so that for the rest of my life I will never be able to meet someone without observing their eyebrows. I will never be able to watch TV without noting the shape, the arch, the width of the actors’. I will never be able to look in the mirror without thinking about my own. Eyebrows are forever on my radar. Eyebrows, and now moods.
Joanne’s remark in that bar, which to anyone else would seem so benign, so passing, unlocked an unconscious part of myself I’d never understood or paid attention to, but now, like eyebrows, I couldn’t stop seeing. Is that why my sister was acting so stressed and bitchy? Is she just in a mood? If so, does she know it? When will she be out of it? When I talked to my boss on the phone and she sounded different, tense, short, I wondered if she was in a mood. When the Starbucks barista’s disposition changed from friendly to terse between one latte and the next, I wondered if it wasn’t because I was a bad tipper, but if, like everyone else, he was just in a mood.
I’d always been highly attuned to the energy of the people and places around me, always felt the subtle shift in affect the same way I felt the slightest drop in temperature. Now, as if overnight, my understanding of myself in relation to the world changed. It was lighter. Easier. Like finally learning the words to a song I’d been singing wrong for years. It all made sense. Knowing that other people’s moods were just as random and uncontrollable as mine lightened the load of my interactions. For the first time, I realized their moods might have nothing to do with me.
That didn’t mean I didn’t still feel them. The more I paid attention to them, the more I saw how potent they were. How they leaked from one person to the next. How they hung in the air. How the slightest change in one person’s mood altered another’s. I watched how they leaked out of me, poisoning those near me. How my fumes wrapped around Jay’s neck, slid up his nose, and pulled him under with me. How his mood would then snake along and infect his mother on the phone. This is how it happens, I thought. How the world infects itself. One bad mood at a time.
On the other side, I saw the charm and effect my good moods had. How when I was on form people opened up to me. How others gravitated to me the same way I had gravitated toward Joanne in the bar. How I could bring light and energy into a room, igniting it with my own spark. How the good moods danced and spun and transformed not just me but all those around me. How Jay fell in love with me, over and over again, when I was in a good mood. My good moods, I knew, were my best self.
And when I was my best self, I was on track. I was doing things that were good for me and good for those around me. I was able to go to the gym, eat healthy, listen intently, be kind. But when I was in a bad mood, all of my worst sides came out. I was sullen and mean and quick with a jab. I was disconnected and withdrawn or overly heightened. I brought the opposite of light, shrouding the space around me in misery. I overreacted, acted out of impulse, misread everything, alienated those I loved, and always woke up with the nauseating question Why did I do that?
Yet try as I might, I still didn’t understand what the bad moods were. Still didn’t know how to describe what was happening when I didn’t feel like doing something, going somewhere, or being some way because I was in a mood. Still didn’t know what was happening when the good mood was gone and the heaviness was back. They weren’t just emotions. They were wider and denser and more complicated than feelings like sadness or anger. They felt like something in between, like the aftereffects of emotions. The charge that stayed in the air after a bomb.
Neuroscientists have confirmed that emotional responses last for only sixty to ninety seconds, so a mood, technically, is anything you feel after those ninety seconds. In My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor wrote, “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.” Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön also believes an emotion that lasts longer than a minute and a half is no longer an automatic response, but a decision to keep igniting that thought, that emotion, over and over again. According to Chödrön, if you allow an emotion to exist for ninety seconds without judging, it will disappear. Like with all self-help advice, the scientists and Buddhists made it seem so simple: Let the emotion go and you won’t have the mood. Stop feeling the thing and move on. But it was so much more complicated than that. So much harder than that. I felt like the emotions came from nowhere, and before I realized what I was feeling, it was too late, I was already in a mood.
I also didn’t understand why Jay didn’t feel them as often or as deeply as I did, and the longer we lived together, the more I believed moods were more a woman’s game. You could say women are predisposed to them. When brain scans were performed on men and women, a certain area of the brain lit up only in women when all participants were asked to clear their minds. This area of the brain, known as the paralimbic cortex, is used to filter emotional reactions to the environment, suggesting that even when women are at rest, their brains are registering and trying to process different emotional clues around them. Some researchers believe this is the reason for women’s intuition. That we never actually stop taking in our environment. That we are never actually at rest.
Then there’s the fact that women’s brain function evolved differently from men’s in response to maternal needs. Our ability to attach emotionally, to sense emotionality in others, has helped us keep our children safe and propagate the species, while making us more prone to depression and anxiety. Neuroscientists have also confirmed that women retain stronger and more vivid memories than men, along with the ability to recall memories faster and with more intensity. This may be the reason women are twice as likely than men to experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I also started noticing moods in everything I read about women. Every quote, every story, every interview seemed to have this underlying theme of emotional turmoil. When Ingrid Bergman recalled, “I remember one day sitting at the pool and suddenly the tears were streaming down my cheeks…I had success. I had security. But it wasn’t enough. I was exploding inside.” I knew how she felt, because I felt the same. When I listened to Stevie Nicks sing, “But never have I been a blue calm sea / I have always been a storm,” I realized moods were not some rare disease only I was afflicted with. Moods were part of being a woman.
I knew this not just from what women said but from what people said about them. Journalist Jean-Paul Enthoven described French film star Françoise Dorléac as “beautiful, young, gifted, easy to laugh with, [with] a halo of anxiety around her.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his wife, “If I didn’t love you so much your moods wouldn’t affect me so deeply.” Director William Frye described Bette Davis as, “like so many great artists, a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand she could be a moody and petulant bully, who carefully cultivated inflexible opinions and fostered great hates. On the other she was a sensitive woman who—provided you were one of the few people she really liked—cared deeply about your health and happiness.”
This was when Words of Women started. I needed a place to put down all I was finding, all I was learning, all that was helping me. In my lowest moment of despair, I started a blog. A place, a timeline, a holding space to keep track of all the words that were helping me. At least, that’s what I told myself, but I think I also wanted company. Because one of the biggest moods that had been plaguing me was loneliness. Perhaps insecurity disguised as loneliness. Not loneliness by default but loneliness deep down by choice. Whatever the true motive, I needed to share what I was finding. Because I knew how I’d felt when I met Joanne, when I realized I was not alone, when someone said I feel the same way.
I only looked for women because I knew only women felt this. As Willa Cather said, “Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.” For the first time I felt understood. These women, these brilliant, artistic, successful women felt the same way I did. Which is why I ended up calling the blog Words of Women. (It’s also why most quotes in this book are by women.)
I didn’t just share a quote or an interview, but the story behind each woman. Because the story was what made the quote interesting. The story was what made it resonate. And then I started sharing how the quote helped me, how it filled the empty spaces, softened the ridges of loneliness and fear. When I started doing that, sharing my most intimate feelings, I knew I was onto something bigger than my own journey. I was helping other women understand their own feelings. I was interrupting their Instagram feed of models and airbrushed ads with something real, something that spoke to the challenges we were all facing. I was sending emails that weren’t filled with cookie recipes and advice for better skin care but were about my bad day, the anxiety I felt writing, and the quotes that were helping me through it.
The more I read, saw, and heard about women, the more I understood that moods were a power as much as a curse. Good moods created a radiance, a magnetism, an aura that attracted people with the same strength and propensity that the bad moods repelled. They were two sides of the same coin. To get rid of my moods would mean to get rid of both the light and the dark, leaving me with nothing but white space, like one of those empty-shell women you meet who have no glow, no life, no spark to them. I didn’t want to get rid of my moods, I realized. I wanted to harness them.
Where Do Moods Come From?
I’m so sorry for all the times I’ve been mean and hateful—for all the miserable minutes I’ve caused you when we could have been so happy.
—Zelda Fitzgerald, from a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald
My good moods didn’t seem to come from anywhere. They felt like my natural state. When I was happy, I was myself. When I was in a bad mood, I was someone else. Good moods always felt the same, whereas bad moods always felt different—had different tastes, weights, degrees. There was the mood I felt when I passed an Instagram story of friends hanging out without me. That subtle shift, the change in me that lingered over something as innocent as a photo. Then there was the mood I felt when my aunt made a remark about my weight at Christmas. The words locking on to my soul and weighing me down in a different way. And then there was the mood at work, the one that bubbled up in the middle of the afternoon when I was tired of staring at my computer, when the thought of taking the crowded subway home created a restlessness I couldn’t shake. In recording all these moods, I noticed a pattern. These feelings, these bad moods, were always triggered by some thing. A photo. A thought. A comment. If my good moods were my natural state, then my bad moods were when something brought me out of it.
I’d always been told to watch out for the big things in life. Death. Disease. Poverty. Those were the things that could hurt me. Those were the things that brought misery and suffering. Those were the things that could ruin my life. No one ever told me about all the small things. The plane delays, the subway commute, the adult acne. The aggressive emails and rude comments. The photos, the wrong angle in the mirror, the thoughts of yesterday and tomorrow. All the tiny things that nicked and scratched me daily, my wounds never healing, scabs never forming. After all these years I started to understand it. It wasn’t about my moods. It was about my triggers.
My triggers were the unique set of things that had the power to push my buttons. If I could avoid my triggers, I could avoid the emotions that would follow. For a while, I tried to avoid all the things I knew triggered me. I got off social media. I called my mom less often. I changed jobs. I changed haircuts. But getting rid of one trigger only unveiled another one. The less I went on social media, the more beautiful girls I noticed at bars, in magazines, on billboards. The less I spoke with my mom, the more comments from Jay or my boss or some friend bothered me. The less I commuted, the more I ran into things at home I couldn’t stand.
Triggers, I realized, couldn’t be avoided. They were part of the experience of life. They were unchangeable, immutable, unavoidable. Psychologists define triggers as stimuli that prompt the recall of a traumatic memory. Mood experts, psychologists, and scientists have also defined moods as responses to feelings triggered by events. Even though whatever triggered the emotion is gone, the mood is still there. Moods weren’t just about understanding my emotions, but the triggers that prompted them.
I finally understood that moods didn’t come out of thin air. That the feelings that plagued me, the anxiety, the anger, the fear, the hurt, didn’t come from some unknown place within, but from these small, mundane triggers outside. And the triggers weren’t making me miserable, my reactions to them were.
I couldn’t do anything about a delayed plane. A crowded subway. A pimple on my wedding day. The only things I could control were my perceptions and reactions to the random, unpleasant circumstances. Because I can’t always stop what happens to me. The events of life are too unpredictable, indeterminable, and unchangeable. My triggers were lessons. Reminders. A buzzer that went off when I hit something in myself that needed attention. A sharp corner that would keep cutting me until I learned my way around it.
Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert or Cheryl Strayed, my journey did not take me to ashrams and through desert plains, but across an isolated span of time in New York City. Five years wandering throughout the dirty, mundane crevices of reality. The female experience. The small things that hurt me, poked me, and wounded me. The comments, the unreturned texts, the fights, the zits, the delays. The triggers of my life.
Throughout this book, I’ll take you on my own personal voyage into the depths of my emotions, to uncover the hidden meaning and underlying truths behind each mood that kept me from living my best life. Each of the following chapters features a moment in time over the past five years. A moment when I caught myself mid-mood. When some event, some tiny, seemingly insignificant thing nicked me and I was able to notice it, record it, and understand it enough to identify it. Over the following days, weeks, months, I’d study it. Dissect it. Practice on it. Because even though that specific moment was gone, another one like it would come. I tried techniques to use the next time I felt a similar way, a similar mood, a similar trigger. I borrowed advice from doctors, psychologists, and hundreds of the women I’d read about. And the ones that stuck with me, the ones that I still use today, the ones that I know work, that can kick a mood out before it begins, are the ones I’m going to share with you.
- “[A]uthor Lauren Martin asks us to think much more, and much more deeply, about moods… In Martin’s view, ‘moody women’ aren’t bound to stigmas. They aren’t irascible, irrational or hormonal in a vacuum. (Although she argues that hormonally charged reactions are real and should be honored, rather than tamped down and shamed). . . Martin's message is relatable.”—The Washington Post
- “In her engaging and informative new memoir, The Book of Moods (2020), New York writer Lauren Martin tells of her personal journey from debilitating moodiness and anxiety to greater peace of mind... feels like a conversation with a close friend.”—Psychology Today
- "Hilariously witty, unflinchingly honest, and brimming with hope, THE BOOK OF MOODS teaches that with authenticity and a little self-coaching, you can take ownership of your emotions-and your own life. Lauren Martin's contagious curiosity leads straight to what she calls "the cornerstone of chill." And you know what? The journey is half the fun."—Bobbi Brown, bestselling author and renowned makeup artist
- "Lauren Martin names those feelings that we all have, explains why we have them, and how we can keep them from defining and dictating our lives. A fascinating, thorough, and truly helpful book. I loved it!"—Sarah Knight, New York Times bestselling author of Calm the F*ck Down
- "A deeply relatable how-to-guide for managing your moods from a woman who gets it. This is a funny, moving memoir filled with so many a-ha moments that I had a hard time putting it down. A real asset for anyone on the quest for better emotion regulation and inner peace."—Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University and Host of The Happiness Lab podcast
- “Martin blends science, philosophy, witty anecdotes and effective forms of self-care to show readers that you can turn your worst moods into your best life.”—PureWow
- "Words of Women founder Lauren Martin delves into the relationship women have with negativity in her smart and often funny self-help tome The Book of Moods. Martin explores her own struggles with anxiety and feelings of inferiority, alongside the science behind moods, to offer practical advice on how to practice effective self-care when negativity starts creeping in."—PopSugar
- “In a memoir that is transparent and authentic, Martin walks us through all of the moods…Martin’s prose also embraces and celebrates womanhood, just when we need it most.”—Shondaland
- “In addition to sharing her own struggles with anxiety, angst, and self-doubt, Martin calls upon clinical studies and stories from inspiring women (i.e. Audrey Hepburn, Princess Diana) to offer readers tangible tools for navigating their own whirlwind of emotions. Think of her book as a series of tried-and-true tactics for practicing self-care and emotional stability.”—Shape Magazine
- On Sale
- Dec 8, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Grand Central Publishing